intersection 02.2.11

Madison Square - Part 1
Walking Off the Big Apple

New York's two great boulevards, Broadway and Fifth Avenue, cross only at one point, and that is at Madison Square. This crossroads, a big "X" on the map, is apt since it is possible to sit in the park and see the intersection of the city's past and future.

In the late 1700s, the area was a Potter's Field. The square was first laid out as the Parade in 1803, running from 23rd to 25th Streets and Third to Seventh Avenues. Planned originally as a military arsenal and drilling area, the park as we know it opened officially in 1847 and was gaslit in 1852.

The Flatiron Building, designed by Daniel H. Burnham, was completed in 1902, and has been a distinctive presence and beloved structure in every generation. The narrow north point of the Flatiron, where Fifth and Broadway converge, is known as the "cowcatcher" (think of the front of an old locomotive). [Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

Madison Square figured prominently in the life of Stanford White. His first work was the pedestal of the Admiral Farragut statue sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The two would work together again on the magnificent Madison Square Garden at Madison and 26th, erected in 1890. The Garden housed the roof-garden restaurant where White was shot and killed by Harry Thaw in 1906. The New York Life Building now occupies the site of White's Garden, which itself replaced the first Garden, which replaced P.T. Barnum's Grand Roman Hippodrome. (New York Life is a 1928 Cass Gilbert building, the octagonal top of which is made from gold ceramic. The gold top was added in 1967.) [NY Life Photo: David Shankbone]

White's last work was another Madison Square landmark—for a time. On the site of the Met Life Tower was once the home of the First Presbyterian Church, called Madison Square Church. When Met Life bought the site and the church needed to relocate, White built them one across the street. Though it stood for only 13 years, it was one of his most splendid works, with a domed ceiling and Tiffany glass.

The Met Life Tower, in the meantime, became the tallest structure in the world from 1909-1912. The Tower is based on the Campanile of St. Mark's. Even before the building was completed, the tower was used to signal the outcome of the 1908 presidential election. The idea was that if Taft were reelected (which he was), a searchlight would shine northward from the tower. [Photo courtesy of Shutterstock]

Standing today on the southwest corner of Fifth and 23rd is the former Western Union Telegraph Building. It was built in 1883, one of the first commercial buildings on Fifth Avenue, designed by the architect of the Dakota (and the second Plaza Hotel), Henry J. Hardenbergh. Also still standing, at the point where Broadway crosses Fifth, is the Worth Monument, The granite obelisk, dedicated in 1858, marks the grave of General William Jenkins Worth, a hero of the Mexican War and the namesake of Worth Street in lower Manhattan, as well as Ft. Worth, Texas.

[Tomorrow: Part 2]

"I give in. Where were those ski deals you wrote about, again?" Answer

Travels to Budapest

Cultural and literary notes, plus self-guided walks, courtesy of Walking Off the Big Apple, a strolling guide to New York City.

Coping With the New Arctic Normal:
Lessons from the Central Park Zoo

Like an endless Groundhog Day of winter snow, sleet, and ice, New Yorkers may finally be settling into patterns of adaptation to our polar climate. The novelty of the deep snow has long worn off, the winter wonderland seems a little less wonderful, and life goes on. Boots are pulled on, parkas zipped up high, and it's time to depart the igloo for the office. Perhaps now is an opportune time to check in on our most acclimatized Manhattan neighbors and pick up coping tips for life during the wintery blasts.

The Central Park Zoo, while a varied artificial environment within the larger artificial landscape known as Central Park, nevertheless provides a good home for polar bears, snow leopards, red pandas and other creatures, especially if nature helps out with a bountiful snowfall. During a recent Sunday visit to the park's Polar Circle, everyone seemed fine, kind of mellow, and even nonchalant about the weather. Gus and Ida, the park's two popular polar bears, slept off the afternoon, sunbathing on blankets of snow on separate rocky outcroppings.

A couple of snow leopards, normally accustomed to the mountains of Central Asia but now seemingly well adapted to the exhibit built for them in 2009, engaged in more alert activities than the bears. One crouched regally on a tree limb, frozen in position, the kind of stillness that precedes a lethal pounce. Another snow leopard, curled up right next to the viewing glass wall that separates them from their human visitors, ignored the small children banging on the wall and proceeded with the necessary business of cleaning its paws and tail.

Moving around the Polar Circle, the large party of snow monkeys spent their time engaged in mutual grooming, dozing off under rocks, or lounging in the hot tub. Nearby, in the battle for cuteness, and winning, a red panda practiced its balancing act on top of a snow-covered tree stump. In all, many of these beautiful creatures have escaped the hunter or have lost their natural habitats due to deforestation and climate change. Let's not begrudge them for their seeming idleness, their expensive Fifth Avenue real estate and Central Park views.

Meanwhile, to paraphrase E. E. Cummings, there's a heck of a good party going on in the zoo's tropical rainforest next door. Let's go.

Central Park Zoo's winter hours are 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily. Directions and visitor information may be found at the official website.

Visit Walking Off the Big Apple to see more images accompanying this post.

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